Having enough food to eat is something most Napans, take for granted. Yet each month, 9,000 people in our community regularly turn to the Napa Food Bank in order to keep food on the table. That number that would be 2,000 people higher if the Food Bank had the capacity to reach all of the people in need. Most of the folks who rely on the food bank are working people, sometimes holding down more than one job, who just can’t make it here. Unfortunately, when the family budget is tight, food is one of the first things to be compromised. Seniors are increasingly relying on the Food Bank. “Nineteen percent of people who rely on the Food Bank are seniors, up from 17% in just one year,” said Shirley King, Director of the Community Action Napa Valley Food Bank.
Zunin, one of the cofounders eight years ago of Napa Valley CanDo, was convinced that, given the chance, Napans would work together to reduce this problem. After years of exploring workable solutions, CanDo helped start the Napa Food Project, which Zunin describes as “not a food drive, but a food donor drive.” The project got underway in 2016, and the group raised 27,000 pounds of food. Their goal is to eventually raise 100,000 pounds a year. Knowing the core volunteers behind the project and the growing number of people in Napa committed to that goal, smart money says they’ll make it.
“Napa CanDo is grass roots, community-based service organization that helps provide volunteers for local non-profits and creates projects when they recognize unmet needs in the community,” Zunin said. “CanDo is always looking for best practices and has little tolerance for talk that doesn’t end in action.” A friend of hers in Ashland Oregon told Zunin about the “Green Bag” program there. Neighborhood Coordinators (NCs) sign up neighbors and give each a green bag. Each week, those neighbors buy one or two extra food items which are stored in the bags. Once every two months, Food Donors simply place those now-full bags outside their front doors. Their NCs pick them up, leave an empty bag behind for the next pick-up and take the bounty to the Food Bank, where Napa Valley CanDo volunteers unload their cars. Every other month, the process repeats.
Marilyn Soulsburg became a Neighborhood Coordinator shortly after the program started, and said the time commitment is low. “I attended a 1½ hour workshop at the beginning,” she said. “Then I asked ten of my neighbors if they would donate.” Early on, Soulsburg was a little concerned about how her neighbors would react when she asked for their involvement. “I was explaining the program to one neighbor, hoping she’d participate. My friend laughed and said, ‘Marilyn, you had me at Food Bank.’” Soulsburg estimates that she now spends only an hour every two months on the project.
“It only takes about thirty minutes to pick up the bags and drop them off, and I sign up a couple more neighbors every month.” Soulsburg is also on the steering committee that is trying to grow the project. Napa currently has forty-five
Neighborhood Coordinators and a network of 600 food donors.
Green Bag programs exist in more than fifty communities nationwide. Although Napa is one of the newest communities to join the effort, the program here is one of the most successful, measured in the number of pounds of food collected and people engaged. Zunin, a long time community activist, loves how it’s working here. “Food drives can bring in a lot of food, but are usually one-offs, and not sustainable,” she said. Building a network of Neighborhood Coordinators ensures that the Napa Food Bank can count on the donations. “It’s also easier to educate people about the kind of foods the Food Bank needs.” Best of all, Zunin says, “It’s building community, one neighborhood at a time.”
Neighborhood Coordinator training takes place every other month, in odd numbered months. The next trainings take place May 15th and 16th. Volunteers sign up for whichever of the two nights works best for them. For more information or to sign up for the training, email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’d like information about how the Green Bag program works, visit nvcando.org. Select “Current Projects” from the green list, then “Napa Food Project” from the blue list. For an overview of the Green Bag program, check out the three minute video at the bottom of that page. Like CanDo says, “You want to help. We make it easy.”